One of the most memorable moments of “August: Osage County” is the dinner scene, which comes at the movie’s halfway point. The meal ends with eldest daughter Barbara (played by Julia Roberts) launching across the table to strangle her caustic, pill-popping mother Violet (Meryl Streep), and shouting one of the piece’s most famous lines: “I’m running things now!” After three-and-a-half days of filming the 20-minute scene, which remains word-for-word in director John Wells’ film version of Tracy Letts’ Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Wells says the cast could have performed it on any stage, anywhere. And while the play’s move to the screen wasn’t a wrestling match, per se, Letts did have to relinquish some control to Wells, who is now, as they say, running things.
“The plays are the plays and they’re my plays, and I’ll answer for those. But ultimately I viewed my job on ‘August: Osage County’ as the job of helping John Wells make the best John Wells film he could make,” Letts says. “Who the hell would I think I am to say, ‘Let me tell you guys how to make the best movie!’ ”
Wells wanted the film to retain the essence of the play, and he and Letts collaborated for 18 months on cutting the three-and-a-half-hour drama down to two hours. Though the play’s language reads as deceptively simple on the page, on the stage it attains a heightened theatrical power that Letts worked to tone down for the film.
The onstage action takes place entirely in the Westons’ three-story house, but the movie steps out into the sprawling, sunbaked landscape of Osage County, which helps to avoid the “filmed play” trap into which many adaptations fall. Also helping the film’s naturalism was the cast’s extracurricular work. Living next door to each other in condos while filming in Oklahoma, the actors gathered at Streep’s house to rehearse the next day’s work—even finalizing the blocking of the dinner scene over a meal of their own.
“Tracy doesn’t make it easy to get all this information across,” explains Roberts, adding that Streep was the first one to offer to run lines. “And we were all very devoted to having it really down. Because once emotions start flying, you have to really have it in your hand to not throw everybody off.”
Finding actors who could handle that language was key to the film’s success. Streep and Roberts came on to the project at the same time Wells joined, and the team wanted to build a family around them. Wells, who trained in theater at Carnegie Mellon, knew that creating a familial atmosphere between the cast would be crucial.
“I asked the actors to spend time studying each other,” says Wells. “They picked up things, motions, movements, of Meryl’s and of each other’s. You can take people who don’t look exactly alike and make them seem very similar simply by having them do things the same way.”
And Margo Martindale, who plays Violet’s sister, is convinced that Streep imitated her. “I noticed at one point that we laughed alike,” recalls Martindale. “And I thought, ‘But that is the way I laugh. I never noticed that Meryl laughed like that.’ ”
The two-week rehearsal process also allowed the actors time to get to know each other and their characters. With some input from Letts—who was only on set for the first day—Wells created backstories for each character. However, the most powerful experiences the actors used in their processes were personal ones.
“I had a son who had severe disabilities and was told by the medical establishment, ‘Don’t invest too much in this boy. He’ll never be intellectually normal,’” says Chris Cooper, who plays Charles Aiken, Violet’s brother-in-law who must consistently stand up for his son due to what others see as his shortcomings. “He proved to be intellectually superior but he always had to prove himself to others. So naturally my wife and I coming to his defense was a way of life for us. He passed away in ’05. So I thought the time was appropriate. It’s OK to touch on those emotions and bring them to my work.”
Even though the cast and creative team tried to keep some of the feeling of the stage version, they had the luxury of multiple takes. The cast members who saw the show on Broadway are still impressed by the stamina of the original team.
“I remember leaving the theater and feeling exhausted and just wrung out, and that’s really how we felt at the end of every day,” remembers Roberts. “I don’t know how they did it as a play. It seems like the acting Olympics, really, eight shows a week. I don’t know how they would have survived that.”